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Climate crisis will also affect how we report

James Fahn does us a great service with his article on the consequences of the climate crisis for investigative journalism (Climate Change: Investigating the Story of the Century), by pointing out both the imperative need to address the subject and the richness of journalistic perspectives. In addition, I would argue that it is fair to expect that the climate crisis will not only affect what we report, but also how we do it.

“The story of the century” is what Fahn calls the climate crisis. Even investigative journalists who do not specialise in the environment or climate - and that is the majority - will be affected by the subject. Health, food, migration, politics and economy are beats that already feel the impact and reporters in other fields will experience the effects when governments, foundations, publishing companies and readers need to relocate their money to emergency relief.

Indeed, we will soon feel overwhelmed. We will witness more weather catastrophes, more waves of refugees, more food problems, more presure on our health care systems, more protests in the streets, more wars and violent attacks, more rich people cheating and steeling to preserve their own comfort and more politicians lying about it all. How are we reporters going to cope? The first question that climate change poses for our profession, is one of capacity.

In-depth journalism has been downsized to its bare minimum or less in most places in the world. The surge in investigative stories in recent years, rides partly on a surf of grants. But will the money from foundations keep pouring in, if necessities elsewhere increase? And will colleagues in places affected by severe droughts or floods be able to keep reporting if they have to flee their homes? Even quality papers will struggle to assign more reporters to the crisis.

We have to come up with new ideas to save money and time. Cross-border cooperation has proven to be a strong driver. Now we should extend that cooperation from sharing stories to sharing expertise, so that no reporter confronted with the effects of climate change for the first time, should have to reinvent the wheel. No matter where she lives or if she is part of a network or a news room. The excellent reporting guides on the GIJN website offer a good start, but a large accessible database of guidelines, tipsheets and stories related to climate change would be the next level. The Global Investigative Journalism Network, together with the Environmental Journalism Network and the Society of Environmental Journalists could be the hosts.

Related to capacity, is the issue of curation - how we employ our scarce resources. Especially since the public taste for alarmist stories is limited. Public attention is a weird thing: first you spend a decade getting climate change on the radar and then once it is (the point that we have reached now) aversion already looms around the corner. In my experience chief editors are often the first to get bored with a topic and even most climate reporters will testify to the need to have a break now and then, to prevent severe depression.  

I am not saying that we should soften the news. On the contrary: we need to talk about the crisis in the most accurate terms (climate journalists, in the footsteps of scientists, for instance don’t speak of  “global warming” or “climate change” anymore, but of a “crisis”, an “emergency” or a “mass extinction”). But we don’t have to be fatalistic. Changes in course are still possible and even if it is already too late to save every soul and creature from devastating climate effects, what we can save is surely worth the effort. Fahn does an excellent job in showing the many possible angles, from investigating the worst cases (like obstructive multinationals) to the best practices.

In our struggle to make the right choices, impact will undoubtly become one of the guiding principles: how can we best contribute to the necessary change? A huge transformation is needed, in record time (within eleven years, according to the IPCC). Although it does not come down to us alone to save the world, we can make a big difference. Between politicians stalling to take drastics measures and a young generation taking to the streets to demand a future, the investigative media can be a third and decisive force.

But some colleagues still don’t feel comfortable with the idea of pointing to solutions. And even among reporters that do want to contribute to the transition, we will have to discuss the means. For instance: is it okay to coordinate our work with NGO’s or even government bodies? I was lucky to be part of a European network of investigative journalists that coordinated its work with Greenpeace last year, to the effect that Greenpeace was able to push through an important improvement in the European agricultural subsidy policy. One succesful way to enhance impact and to accelerate changes is to form alliances. But then we have to find a way to preserve our reliability.

There are, no question, many more effects of the climate crisis on our work, some of them we can not yet see. But a sincere discussion about capacity, curation and impact would be a start.

(Luuk Sengers, April 29, 2019)